Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mark W. Geiger's "Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War"

Mark W. Geiger is a postdoctoral fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861-1865, and reported the following:
From page 99:
By late 1863 the banks and the defendants were, in different ways, trapped. To survive, the banks had to collect their bad debts. Lawsuits filed by the banks clogged the dockets of the state’s civil courts in the final two years of the war, but eventually all cases were settled. Missouri’s southern men could only use this interval to play a rigged game in the enemy’s courts and legislature. When it was all over, most of the defendants had no property left. Not everyone was willing to accept this brand of justice, however. Political repression, the bitterness of military defeat, and, finally, the forced land sales all made further violence certain.
This book explores a previously unknown financial conspiracy that occurred at the start of the American Civil War. In 1861, a small group of pro-secession politicians, bankers, and wealthy men in Missouri conspired to divert money from the state’s banks to equip rebel military forces. The scheme backfired and created mass indebtedness among Missouri’s pro-southern population, especially the wealthy slaveholders. Court judgments eventually forced the sale of a hundred and forty thousand hectares of farmland, creating a revolution in landownership that decapitated the state’s southern society. Today a subaltern southern culture survives in Missouri, but little remains of a traditional southern aristocracy, unlike in other former border slave states like Kentucky and Maryland. Many of these newly landless families emigrated. Most went west and south, but some scattered as far as Brazil and Mexico.

As a further turn in this story, the indebtedness intensified the guerrilla war that raged in Missouri from mid-1862 on. This was the worst period of terrorist violence ever to occur on American soil, and it is an aberration in American history that has never been fully explained. A disproportionate number of the young men from these dispossessed families joined the guerrillas, making common cause with desperate and violent men from the bottom of society. Many guerrillas later turned to banditry, most famously the gang led by Jesse James. The violence so disrupted civil society that conditions did not settle down for nearly two decades after the war. In the 1870s eastern newspapers called Missouri “the robber state,” and depicted the continuing violence as something that set Missouri apart from the rest of the country.

Looking beyond this melodramatic story, the records of the failed conspiracy show an archaic form of military mobilization used throughout the U.S. in 1861 that historians have not previously studied. In 1861, governments North and South lacked the money, the legal authority, and the administrative capacity necessary for military mobilization. Without private financing, the shooting war could not have started until months later. The U.S. had relied on private financing for all its earlier military mobilizations, and the system was of ancient pedigree in Europe. This was the last time the country mobilized for war in this way, marking a turning point in the centralization of federal power and the formation of a modern administrative state.
View a video trailer for Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri's Civil War, 1861-1865, and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue